An Example of How Subtle Racism Can Become[i]
You will rarely find a friend who combines theological knowledge with deep affections for Christ. Those qualities I found in the person of Albert Medina. He is a layperson and is currently applying for church membership in the United Covenant Reformed Churches of the Philippines (UCRCP), a federation of churches that adheres to the confessional and historic Reformed Faith, that is, the Calvinistic branch of the Protestant Reformation. Albert attends the Pasig City congregation of that Reformed federation and is undergoing catechism/membership classes.
What would you feel upon hearing the news that one or more of your Filipino countrymen have suffered racial discrimination abroad or that a foreign TV show has mocked Filipinos either explicitly or implicitly in one of its episodes? The natural reaction would be to get offended and/or outraged. We Filipinos would demand a public apology from the individuals or institutions who have attempted to bring disgrace upon us, and we would not stop our protest unless the demanded public apology has been given. We as a people have shown our hatred for any attempt to ridicule our character as a nation many times in the past. If you are a Filipino living in the Philippines, and if you have carefully followed the news for the past twelve months, you know what exactly I am saying. Yes, there have been attempts by some foreign individuals to mischaracterize our ability as Filipinos and most of us deemed those actions as both inappropriate and racist.
Every group of people that has received racist insults of any form from individuals or institutions has the right to defend itself and demand an apology. The good thing is that concerned Filipino groups are always there to react against such attempts and demand a public apology from the offenders. I do believe, however, that many of us (note: not all) Filipinos are inconsistent at this point. Have we as a people considered the possibility that a lot of us are as guilty of racism as are the others? Is there any indication that a form of racism has so permeated a large part of Filipino society that we are not aware that such kind of racism exists?
I am of the opinion that a subtle form of racism does exist in Filipino society. Observe that the racism that I am talking about does not belong to the category of formal institutional racism that has characterized the policies of some foreign governments in the past. The Filipino governments since independence never imposed segregation of races and/or anti-miscegenation laws. I am also not talking about something that is peculiar to the Philippines. This is a form of racism that is found in varying degrees in many societies in South, Southeast, and East Asia. Lest you think that I am alone in this observation, this subtle kind of racism has been documented in TV and in print by Western foreign media institutions like the German DW-TV, the British BBC, and the American TIME Magazine in the past. A look at the archives of their websites will also bear this out.[ii]
This subtle form of racism that I am attempting to describe is the way myriads of Filipinos, together with many other Asians, look at dark-skinned people. This cannot be denied. We Filipinos as well as many of our Asian neighbors have been raised in societies where fair skin is highly prized and dark skin is looked down upon. Having a dark skin tone is almost a curse that will haunt a person all his life in both school and work. This explains the popularity of skin whitening products which constitute a big enterprise in the Philippines and in other Asian societies.[iii] In our country, we see them sold in malls, shopping centers, and even our nearest retail stores. TV, radio and print advertisements promoting these products abound.[iv] In fact, we also see advertisements of this kind displayed in many of the important roads and streets of Metro Manila (e.g., EDSA and C-5). From time to time, we hear many Filipinos flippantly mentioning the word “negro”[v] upon seeing foreign nationals who happened to have dark skin.[vi] What is worse is that this prejudice is not only directed against foreign people who are naturally dark. What is so ironic is that the same Filipinos discriminate each other on the basis of a darker skin tone. Apparently, this is also true of other Asian ethnic groups where fair skin is seen as beautiful and dark skin is seen as ugly.[vii]
But some may object “What’s wrong with preferring one skin tone over another? Don’t other races and nationalities desire to change their skin tone? What’s so racist with considering dark skin as undesirable?” But this objection is oblivious to the fact that the issue here is more than just the craze about skin whitening products. It is about the racist attitude against dark-skinned peoples that prevails in much of our very own Filipino society and is reflected in the diverse forms of Philippine media. You will indeed find racism in its various forms in different continents and countries. But that is beside the point. Treating certain groups of people as inherently ugly because of a certain skin tone is racist in itself and therefore sinful (as I will attempt to show in the next paragraphs). Can any of us Filipinos comfortably and gleefully display a skin whitening product (which seems to say that dark skin is ugly by nature) in front of the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, the current President of the US? Would we not get offended if some foreign individuals or groups were to say that brown skin is ugly and must be continually considered as such? Why are we offended at all when Filipinos are insulted in foreign TV shows considering that our own local personalities insult other nationalities and races on national TV? What would life be like if you were be born in the Philippines of one Filipino parent and another parent of a dark-skinned foreign ethnic group? Would you object if your son (or daughter) decides to marry a Christian woman (or man) who comes from a foreign ethnic group which is naturally of a dark skin tone, and establish a family with her (or him)? How these questions are answered will show why many of us Filipinos are inconsistent. We condemn racist attitudes and actions directed against us but we are hardly affected of the fact that we can’t seem to purge racist attitudes and actions within our own ranks. We Filipino Christians should be all the more concerned since even professing Filipino believers themselves are at times guilty of this kind of racism. I have heard Christians utter racist remarks against other nationalities – and that inside their own church! Racism is at its worst in our Philippine context not only when the discussion is about who is dark and who is not but most especially when it is committed by those who claim to be followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let me offer two short reasons why we Filipinos believers should re-evaluate much of our thinking and practice in light of the way our society has shaped our views about skin color. First, racism of whatever form is a denial of the Biblical truth that all men regardless of color are created in the image of God. For any racist argument to stand, it must first reject the Scriptural doctrine of creation. All peoples whether Asian or Black, White or Hispanic, or of whatever group descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve. Human persons may have different physical features but the unchanging fact is that we all come from one source. Every person therefore without exception is created in the image of God. Both the Old and New Testaments bear testimony to this.
Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Acts 1:26 And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
To despise a certain skin tone and consider it as inherently ugly is contrary to Scriptural teaching. It is to despise God’s beautiful creation.
Second, it is erroneous to draw lines on the basis of color as peoples from different places and from different time periods have ignorantly done. The only possible divide we can draw is between the Church and the world. As Christians, we are contra mundum. We are against the world and its evil teachings. As the Word of God teaches us,
John 17:19 They [Christ’s disciples] are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
1 John 2:15-17 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
Racism is of the world and is consequently evil. Christianity has nothing to do with racism and all Christians should fight racism up to their last breath. In Adam, sin entered mankind (Romans 3:23; 6:23). All men (with the exception of the Lord Jesus) from then on are conceived and born in sin. But in Christ, we Christians regardless of color have been redeemed and saved by Him (Romans 5:12ff.). As hell will be a multi-ethnic and multi-colored place, so will heaven be. The Church is the blood-bought people of God. It is a community of people called from all the nations of the earth. Note the following Scriptures.
Matthew 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
Galatians 3:8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.
Revelation 7:9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
We Christians from all the nations irrespective of ethnic or racial background are one in Christ. We are one body of which He is the Head.
Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Colossians 3:11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
Romans 12:4, 5 For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
1 Corinthians 12:12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
Ephesians 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
This is the same body into which the dark-skinned and believing Ethiopian eunuch was baptized (Acts 8:26ff.; 1 Corinthians 12:13). To judge people then on the basis of skin color is to go against the Bible’s teaching on the Fall of our first parents, and the salvation we believers have in our only Lord and Savior.
Given these considerations, we Filipino Christians as well as our other Asian brethren must be a consistent Bible-believing people. As Bible believers, our presuppositions on ethnic and racial issues must be governed by the unchanging doctrines of creation, original sin, and redemption in Christ. Racism in all of its manifestations is contrary to Christ and the gospel of grace. We must repent of this sin, and call others believers and unbelievers alike to do the same. It is my prayer then that all of us may be consistent Christians in both word and in deed (James 2:26). May the Lord find us faithful when He comes (1 Thess. 5:23; Jude 24). For further study on this issue, please consult the recommended reading below.
For Further Reading:
Many Ethnicities, One Race by Thabiti Anyabwile
Report of the Committee on the Problems of Race from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s website (The Orthodox Presbyterian Church or OPC is a conservative Reformed denomination in North America)
The Biblical Offense of Racism by Douglas Jones
The Reformed Faith and Racial Harmony
[i] Observe that I am writing this article with a Filipino and Christian audience in mind.
[ii] See DW-TV’s Dangerous Beauty: Thailand’s Women Want White Skin At Any Price, BBC’s Beyond the Pale?, and TIME Magazine’s Changing Faces, for examples.
[iii] I again refer the reader to the documented reports by the above mentioned media institutions for more detailed information on this.
[iv] I am aware of famous TV personalities who are in the habit of making fun of the fact that some people are naturally dark-skinned. And they do that in their own TV shows. I digress as to who these individuals are.
[v] In the Philippine context, variants of the derogatory description “negro” are “nognog” and “baluga.” The word “negro” as used in many Filipino contexts carries with it the (badly mistaken) idea that dark skin is inherently ugly.
[vi] I can’t help but be reminded of a high school classmate who is of partly Middle Eastern and partly Filipino in ancestry. He is dark skinned, and that has caused many of our classmates to insult him for being dark. This classmate of mine rarely got mad at those who teased him since they were mostly his closest friends as well.
[vii] This mentality evidently can’t be separated from the Asian nation-states’ colonial history. But this is a different story and requires a more extensive analysis. There is also evidence in some Asian societies (other than that of the Philippines) that fair skin is already highly prized even before contact with Europeans started. For a study of the Philippine case, see The Whitening of Brown Skins and the Darkening of Whiteness by Elaine LaForteza.